Vintage of the Century

It's the vintage of the century!

The pickers take a break as dawn breaks

The hype machine is on for the West Coast. Unfortunately, the noisiest wine press is no longer the one that separates the juice from the skins. Hopefully someday we can get back to the fact that in agriculture there is no perfection, only personality.

Each vintage the weather and soil combine to create a once in a lifetime experience. As with people, the personality you prefer is, well, personal. This, of course, does not apply to the vast majority of wines, which are industrial beverages where the only thing that is important to the consumer and producer is that their wines have no individuality from year to year. Oddly enough, this same rule seems to apply to cult wines.

In the Napa Valley, the weather could not have been kinder to grape growers. Mother Nature’s largess to grape growers and winemakers is not always equal. There’s not an empty fermenter or barrel to be found in the Napa Valley right now due to the bumper crop of grapes bestowed on the Valley this year. More is not necessarily better when it come to winemaking. The growers are already celebrating and headed for some sunny beach. Winemakers still have plenty of work to be done in the cellars with most of the red wine harvest still in fermenters.

It was a vintage Goldilocks would have loved. Not too hot and not too cold, just right. It started with a gentle spring that allowed for textbook flowering and fruit set. Then they just started to come, one after another. Warm sunny day after warm sunny day. Rarely did we hit 100° F for the high and just as rare was the day it did it not hit at least 85° F. The nights were cool dropping down to the low fifties, even nicking the forties. Up and down the temperatures swung wide each day in that dance that makes the Napa Valley such an exceptional place to grow wine grapes. 

September arrived and harvest began. First pinot gris and then we started picking sauvignon blanc, almost on the same date we’ve picked the last two years. Then they started to fall like dominos, coming in just the order you’d expect: first the merlot and then the syrah followed by cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon. The even weather allowed us to pick at a deliberate pace able to wait until the flavors arrived at just the right point. By the middle of October we’d picked almost all of our vineyards. The first real forecast of rain arrived at the same time. On Sunday, October 21st we picked our last fruit. At midnight it started to rain.

By our standards at Cornerstone Cellars we’re very, very happy and optimistic about the wine that is fermenting as I write this article. What makes us happy? Wines with freshness, life, energy and, most of all, personality. We were able to pick truly ripe fruit at moderate sugar levels, which means moderate alcohol levels with crisp acidity that will make the wines sing. I love it.

In most of Europe’s great wine regions a bad vintage means cold and rain, in the Napa Valley it means too hot and dry. For example, take the highly touted 1997 vintage in Napa. The wines are now falling apart, condemned to death by the same high pH and alcohol levels that got them their good reviews in the first place. There’s a sucker born every minute. This will not be a 100 point vintage in the Wine Spectator, thank God, which means we’ll be able to make some real wine.

So the journalists will want to know if this was a great vintage. Of course it was, just like it will be next year and was last year. It’s not a question that anyone who has grown anything would ask. It is the experience of growing the fruit and making it into wine each and every year that makes for greatness. Letting that individuality speak in the wine every year is what makes wine so fascinating. The greatness of wine is in how it speaks to you. Each of us can rate a wine or a vintage 100 points, but we can only do that for ourselves. No one can do it for us.

There is something to love in every vintage. Every vintage is the vintage of the century, even if just for a few minutes. Andy Warhol said everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes. Each vintage should at least get that.